Biggest Remaining Challenge Each Pac-12 Coach Faces This Offseason
The offseason isn't over yet. That's a sentence no Pac-12 fan wants to hear, but we're more than halfway through the month of June and college football is just around the corner.
Recruiting for the 2015 class has hit its stride, and coaches are likely putting together a plan as to how they'll improve when fall camp arrives. Needless to say, while the sky remains dark for the fans, it's full steam ahead for players and coaching staffs around the country.
If you're a top-notch coach, you probably have goals set aside for this time of year. Heck, the best coaches probably have goals they want to accomplish every single day. So what's left on the docket before the 2014 season begins? What hurdles are standing in the way between now and starting the season in the best shape possible?
Here are the biggest remaining challenges each Pac-12 coach still faces this offseason.
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Biggest remaining challenge for Rich Rodriguez: Finding a starting quarterback.
If you were to ask Rodriguez about the process of selecting a starting quarterback in time for the Wildcats' season-opener, he'd probably call it more of an opportunity than a challenge.
But while every player on the team plays a role, let's not mistake the fact that the quarterback usually has the biggest hand in both wins and losses. Making sure you have the right player leading your team can mean the difference between 10 wins and six or seven wins.
The Wildcats are lucky enough to be in a situation where the position is loaded with talent. Jesse Scroggins and Anu Solomon both look capable of leading a Pac-12 program, as do the other contenders. But naming a starter is a major decision for Rodriguez, and it's easily his biggest challenge left in the offseason.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Biggest remaining challenge for Todd Graham: Getting a young defense to believe.
You'll hear a lot of talk about Arizona State as a team with plenty of offensive firepower in 2014. You'll also hear talk about how a young defense that just lost players like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford will be the squad's ultimate undoing.
Talk about a slap in the face to the guys there now. "Your team will only go as far as the offense can carry you." That's not something a defense wants to hear, and when the previews start rolling out, it should be used as motivation.
To be fair, it's a solid observation. Taylor Kelly, D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong could play on any team in the country, and the defense has questions on every level. The biggest challenge for Graham is to get his guys on that side of the ball to believe. After all, it shouldn't be that difficult to improve upon having the 64th-ranked scoring defense, which is where the Sun Devils finished in 2013 even with all of the talent.
California Golden Bears
Biggest remaining challenge for Sonny Dykes: Make sure defensive issues are addressed.
We can't stress this one enough. While Sonny Dykes is a known offensive guru, he must have confidence in his defense heading into the 2014 season, or Jared Goff could morph into Tom Brady and it still wouldn't matter.
Dykes' offensive style is going to work, but it may not get a chance if the defense keeps the team out of ball games. The Bears allowed nearly 46 points per game in 2013.
At some point, that kind of effort goes above the pay grade of the defensive coordinator. It falls on to the head coach. The Bears have questions to answer on offense, but if Dykes doesn't make sure his defense has improved, the points may not even matter.
Biggest remaining challenge for Mike MacIntyre: Seeing to it that leaders emerge on both sides of the ball.
Coach Mike MacIntyre has already done a great job with Colorado, turning the Buffaloes from a one-win team in 2012 to a four-win squad in 2013. No one will celebrate four wins, but a step in the right direction is more than fans have seen in a long time.
With talent starting to trickle into the roster, the challenge now is turning four wins into a bowl game. In order to do that, MacIntyre must make sure he has leaders who emerge on both sides of the ball. While the offense has several players with more experience, quarterback Sefo Liufau is the guy to take this team where it wants to go, and we're tabbing him as an important leader.
The same can be said for the defense, where despite having just a year under his belt, linebacker Addison Gillam looks like one of the best players on the team. If the two can become leaders of this group and get the locker room to believe they can win each week, the Buffaloes will continue in the right direction.
Biggest remaining challenge for Mark Helfrich: Make some headway in defensive line recruiting.
The Ducks are set up to have a great season in 2014, with star quarterback Marcus Mariota complemented by a deep, talented squad. For Mark Helfrich, it's time to make sure the recent success is sustainable.
With an already-thin defensive line, that means finding answers in recruiting before it's too late. The Ducks didn't sign a single true nose tackle in 2013. Some of the big defensive ends may switch positions at some point, but Helfrich needs to get ahead of the 8-ball for the 2015 class.
That doesn't necessarily mean landing a 4-star recruit at the position before the season, but it does mean putting out enough offers to the right kids so that the program isn't scrambling come January. If the spot isn't addressed, it's going to become a serious problem in 2015.
Oregon State Beavers
Biggest remaining challenge for Mike Riley: Making sure his bike is properly tuned up.
We kid, of course. Riley's biggest challenge is actually having a specific plan for his run/pass ratio on offense.
The longtime Beavers coach is sitting pretty these days, but 2013 was an interesting year. After a streak of great running backs that began with Ken Simonton and ended with Jacquizz Rodgers, the Beavers threw the ball at an outstanding rate and quarterback Sean Mannion ended up with over 4,500 yards.
Of course, this came at the expense of the ground attack.
That worked well against teams that couldn't handle the onslaught, but the lack of a running game hurt the team down the stretch. Will Mike Riley continue to rely solely on Mannion's arm, or will he be able to incorporate a strong running game with backs like Terron Ward and Storm Woods?
Biggest remaining challenge for David Shaw: Figuring out how to become more dynamic on offense.
Stanford has the benefit of not needing to score 40 or 50 points per game. The Cardinal boast a great defense and a ball-control offense, which not only uses up the clock but also limits the number of possessions the opponent will have.
That's not going to last forever. Sure, while Shaw is there you can expect great defense and a pro-style offense. But it's difficult to imagine the Cardinal winning the Pac-12 each season without becoming more dynamic on offense.
The obvious answer to this problem is Ty Montgomery, an intriguing player with a solid blend of physicality and straight-line speed. But Tyler Gaffney is gone from the backfield, and in will step relatively fresh faces. Devon Cajuste was solid but not spectacular at wideout last fall.
So, David Shaw, how will you make your offense more dynamic on 2014?
Biggest remaining challenge for Jim Mora: Don't let the team buy into the hype.
It's hard to imagine that there's another coach out there who could have come in and rejuvenated the UCLA program quite like Jim Mora did. He did it by instilling the principles of hard work, team camaraderie and the belief that the Bruins belonged with the nation's best.
That doesn't sound like earth-shattering logic, but it's much easier to identify what a program needs to work on than to actually work on those things and turn it around. Now, the key will be continuing to approach each day with something to prove.
Everyone knows Brett Hundley. Everyone knows Myles Jack. No one would be shocked to see UCLA in the initial four-team playoff. That's how much this program has grown over the past few years.
But if players begin to buy into the hype, the quick trip up the mountain could turn into a detour that stifles the progress.
Biggest remaining challenge for Steve Sarkisian: Mentally preparing for media scrutiny as head coach of USC
Steve Sarkisian spent part of his coaching career on the USC sidelines watching guys like Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush march up and down the field making national headlines every week. He knows what it means to be a part of the USC program and what it's like to face the scrutiny that comes with donning the cardinal and gold.
But Sark was never the man to face blame on the rare occasions when the Trojans struggled. At Washington he certainly dealt with his share of hardships, but he took over a team that was coming off a win-less campaign. Expectations, to put it bluntly, were non-existent.
Even with his previous experience at USC, Sarkisian must make sure he's ready to face the storm. Every loss and every bad play call will fall on his shoulders. With the talent that exists on the roster, fans want to compete for conference and national titles right away. Is Sark ready?
Biggest remaining challenge for Kyle Whittingham: Figuring out how his team is going to score 30 points per game.
Last year, the Utah Utes averaged a shade over 29 points per game, good enough for 10th in the Pac-12 conference. While that number may not seem extraordinarily low, today's game requires more points than ever before to win.
Consider, too, that Whittingham's team went through a seven-game stretch in 2013 in which it failed to eclipse 27 points even once. Not surprisingly, the Utes were just 2-5 in that stretch.
If quarterback Travis Wilson can shed his worst attributes and keep his best ones, that will be a start. But Whittingham must identify someone other than Dres Anderson who can be a threat on offense throughout the season.
Biggest remaining challenge for Chris Petersen: Figuring out the situation at running back.
Chris Petersen's Boise State teams were successful in large part due to strong play from the quarterback position. Kellen Moore had one of the best careers in the history of the college game, but just as important to the overall production on offense was the running back position.
It started with Ian Johnson, continued with Doug Martin and most recently, it's been Jay Ajayi doing work between the tackles. Washington lost one of the best backs in school history in Bishop Sankey to the NFL this past offseason, and left in the cupboard are Jesse Callier, Deontae Cooper and Dwayne Washington.
While not exactly bare, that isn't a trio casual fans are familiar with. Will it be one of the veterans, Cooper or Callier, who steps up here? Perhaps the young Washington will surprise the two elder statesmen?
Regardless of how the situation plays out, Petersen must make sure he has a tough back he can rely on week in and week out.
Washington State Cougars
Biggest remaining challenge for Mike Leach: Having a plan for working a healthy rushing attack into the offense.
Washington State coach Mike Leach wants his offenses to throw the ball, and throw it often. That won't ever change. His Cougars are set up to do just that in 2014 with the return of their top six receivers.
But in order for the program to truly make waves in the Pac-12 north, it will have to feature a multifaceted offense that makes defenses account for more than just a dynamic aerial attack.
The answer here? A healthy dose of both Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, two backs who each averaged over 4.9 yards-per-carry in 2013. But the question is, what plan will Leach come up with to integrate their running styles into the offense a bit more than last year?
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